Belief in god, it is often said, is not an easy thing. As with most worthwhile pursuits, however, you have to continuously work on it and nurture it. At a certain point, you simply have to decide to believe in god, and have faith in him.
There are two general problems with this idea:
First, it is true that when it comes to people’s subjective feelings and decisions, there are some cases when you decide to accept certain things, and then work on them and nurture them. Personal relationships are prime examples of where this is important. But it is also important not to conflate subjective decisions about one’s personal life with objective truth claims about the nature of the universe. It’s perfectly fine (at least as far as fundamental logic is concerned) to take a leap of faith and trust your spouse before nurturing and working on your relationship with him/her. All you’re trying to do here is make a personal and subjective decision regarding your own happiness (and that of your spouse, hopefully). But extending this idea to the objective existence of something outside of your head is not the same thing. Objective claims will require objective evidence.
The second problem is that a belief in an objective truth claim isn’t something you can simply decide on. A belief is a type of emotion that takes hold of you under certain conditions. You might be able to control the conditions, but the feeling of belief that results is not something you can direct. It works pretty much the same way that confusion, love, anger, happiness and sadness work. Consider also that this feeling of belief, just like any other feeling, is not a cause, it’s an effect. If you want to create the effect, start by working on the cause. When it comes to belief, the causes are evidence and reasoning (it isn’t always sound evidence and reasoning, unfortunately, but they’re there nonetheless). So telling someone to simply skip over the cause (evidence and reasoning), and leap right to the effect (belief) is another way of admitting you have no evidence and reasoning – which is another way of admitting that the belief is unfounded. Don’t tell me to just believe, tell me why I should believe, point me to the evidence and reasoning that should cause me to believe. The believing part will either happen on its own, or it won’t, but you can’t simply tell someone to feel something they don’t.
Many people like to point out that a person is free to believe anything they want, but surprisingly, there are some very simple ways of demonstrating how this is not so. For starters, if you could make yourself believe anything you wanted, you would be able to demonstrate this by making yourself believe things you know are false. Try this out, and see how difficult it is. Here’s an example: Can you make yourself believe that Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States of America? You are certainly free to try, and also free to say you believe this, but this doesn’t change the fact that you just can’t do it – you can’t make yourself feel that it’s true. You are bound by the belief that Lincoln wasn’t the first president, that it was actually George Washington. And it’s not as if you ever really chose to believe Washington was the first president either, this belief is just an effect that the evidence caused in you. If you want someone to believe something, give them sufficient evidence and reasoning for the belief to take hold of them.
Another common mistake that people make is thinking that a subsequent consequence is a good enough reason to support a current belief – that you should believe it because you’ll be so much better off if you did. But this would be to put the cart before the horse – the effect before the cause. You can argue that it might be nice if this were possible, but it won’t change the fact that our brains just aren’t wired to do this – and for good reason. The appeal to consequence is a classic logical fallacy that conflicts not only with rational thought but with our inability to feel what we don’t feel. Again, you’re certainly free to claim you believe something because you think you’ll be better off believing it, but this would be no more than an attempt to deceive yourself – and possibly others.